Since I moved out to the suburbs last year, I see the flag everywhere I go. It is a common sight on the monster Fords that pass me illegally in the breakdown lane or across the double yellow line. Color print-outs of it are taped up outside the cubicles of the secretaries at work, along with cat and baby pictures.
Oddly, more people seem to have it on their cars here than their homes. At first I wondered if some neighborhood rules might prohibit flags but that isn’t the case. Maybe people put the flag on their car because they know it will be seen more there, or maybe they live in neighborhoods I haven’t driven through yet. At the auto parts store, stickers of the flag are next to ones with a skull and crossbones, giving you a choice of playing patriot or pirate.
What does it mean to fly the flag? I am scared to ask anyone because it will sound like a criticism. I know what it means to wear a Bob Dylan t-shirt; it means you like his music. But what exactly does it mean to say you like America when you are presumably speaking to other Americans? Don’t we all live here together? Aren’t we all in America? Or are some of us more American than others?
As I understand it, patriotism can mean two things. One is devotion to your country and your fellow citizens instead of your own private interests, like if you enlist in wartime or are prevailed upon to accept high public office with reluctance. The other is believing that the country you were born in or came to is great, maybe not perfect or even the best in most things, but actually and demonstrably great in comparison with other actual existing countries, of which there are currently two hundred and sixty-eight.
The U.S. is neither the largest country in the world nor the most populous. Its 300 million inhabitants are about a third the cool billion of China or India and on a par with fourth place Indonesia. Tokyo and Mexico City are bigger than the Big Apple, as is Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nor is the U.S. the healthiest, going by infant mortality of 6%, 22% still smoking, 65% overweight or obese, and life expectancy of 77 years; the average Japanese person will get four extra years with their grandchildren. It is not the newest or the oldest or the highest or the lowest.
With almost a fifth of the world’s total wealth (for 4% of the total population), it is arguably the richest, though one does well to note that its current lagging growth rate of 3.1% ranks it at 106th in that category, a little below the world average of 3.7% and well behind China’s 9.1%. In terms of per capita income, the U.S. comes in around $36K, second after Luxembourg and about the same as Norway, with Switzerland five grand behind, and Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Finland and Sweden all in roughly the $27K-$29K range. China is $5K and India is under $3K while Africa averages around $2K.
80% of the U.S. economy is “soft” rather than “hard,” not old-fashioned agriculture (2%) or manufacturing (18%) but various activities typically lumped together as services: finance, retail sales, education, health care, entertainment, all office work, pretty much anything that isn’t a farm or factory. The U.S. currently imports 11% of its goods from China alone (whose economy is over 50% manufacturing and who sells the U.S. $24 billion more than it buys from them).
The U.S. has 200 million TV sets, half as many as China but the most per capita of any large nation. It has 16,000 movie theaters, which places it 1st overall but only 17th per capita. The average American sees five movies a year, surpassed only by gloomy Iceland; the French see half as many, while China’s average comes to one every ten years.
The U.S. has the most cars per capita, 76 per 100 people compared to 56 for Canada and 1 for China. Over 70 million cell phones make it 1st overall but 34th per capita. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Taiwan has slightly more cell phones than people.
The U.S. consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day, about a fourth of the world’s oil, four times as much as any other country, while producing a corresponding 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, more than the U.K. or Canada produce in ten years.
About two trillion dollars are collected and spent by the U.S. government annually, around 20% of the GDP. Sweden’s government spends 47% of its GDP, Germany 38%, and Britain 35%, France is comparable to the U.S. at 21%, Canada about 17%, Switzerland down around 13%. In Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, taxes are up in the forty to fifty percent range, while the U.S.’s twenty to thirty range is the same as Britain and Canada.
In absolute terms, the U.S. spends over $400 billion annually on the military, more than eight times as much as the next biggest spender, China. In 1998 the U.S. was spending almost 4% of its national resources on the military, about twice the world average of 2%. (North Korea spends 23% of its resources on the military, Israel spends 8.7%, Japan and Switzerland spend 1% and there are countries that spend none.)
This 4% of GDP amounts to almost 20% of the national budget. For purposes of comparison, roughly 20% of the budget is Medicare and Medicaid, 20% Social Security and 10% interest on the national debt. Some analysts however believe it is more accurate to count the military’s share of discretionary spending, while considering the revenue and outlay from entitlement programs as a separate matter, in which case military spending is about half the budget, eight times as much as education. This comes out to about a thousand dollars a head, compared to $250 and $40 respectively for the two peaceful countries on our borders.
The U.S. has the largest air force in the world, over 370,000 personnel, over three times more than the next largest. The U.S. Navy is almost 400,000, about eight times that of the formidable U.K. 65% of U.S. troops are usually based at home while 35% of them are stationed abroad, 12% still in Germany, 3% in Japan and 2% in South Korea. Total U.S. armed forces amount to 1.3 million personnel, only 1.6% of the population. (40% of the population in North Korea is in the army, 20% in Israel.)
In strange ways the U.S. closely resembles the adversaries it most wishes to distinguish itself from. Like North Korea, it overspends on the military. Like China and Iran, it executes criminals. (Japan is the only other highly developed nation with the death penalty and they use it about a sixth as often.)
The U.S., which is the only country that has ever used a nuclear weapon, currently has more than seven thousand operational warheads in silos, subs and on bombers. Some are scheduled for disarmament, which currently means storage rather than actual dismantling. America is the world’s largest arms dealer, controlling around half the world market, though in a Bond movie you’ll always see a Russian or a swarthy Arab.
The U.S. is not doing much for the rest of the world. It gives .06% of its GDP to foreign aid; relative to its economy, Denmark gives 17 times as much. On top of that, 23% of U.S. foreign aid is actually military aid, with the two largest recipients being Israel and Egypt.
If you do not adjust for population, the U.S. takes the gold in rape, assault and burglary. The U.S. has more of its population in prison than any other country, 7 out of every 1000, about seven times as much percentage-wise as China or Western Europe, for a total of 2 million prisoners. In its report on the U.S., Amnesty International points out that in other countries, male prison guards are not allowed to be alone with women prisoners, a simple and effective precaution to prevent rape. Human Rights Watch will remind you that in America juveniles are tried as adults in many cases and penalties for drug offenses are extreme, particularly in the state of New York. The average U.S. prison sentence is 29 years, twice that of the U.K.
Attempting to examine the public record with an open mind, one comes to a few inescapable conclusions. Americans use too much gas and pay too much for health care (four times as much as other countries), and spend too much of their nation’s resources on the military. At the same time, there are positives that were unanticipated: relatively low unemployment (6.2% compared to the world average of 30%), no draft and moderate taxes.
As militaristic as America seems today, it is still a country where there is no compulsory military service as there is in Europe. Even Sweden, which has not been at war in almost two hundred years, has seven to fifteen months of service, and neutral Switzerland maintains an army of 28,000. Most of Europe is beginning to cautiously phase out the draft, because modern technology requires in-depth and ongoing training. There is a potential downside to this elimination, as hardened career soldiers may have a different ethical code than civilian draftees on a shorter tour.
While America’s tax system is different from that of Scandinavia and Western Europe, it is similar enough to Britain and Canada that Americans have a reasonable right to expect the same benefits from their government. America should not be constantly comparing this term to the last, as if our chief had shamanic powers over the economy. We may judge our economy not by last year but by next door. We should cease looking inward and backwards and instead rate our governance by comparison with countries that resemble ours.
Putting aside the question of socialism, it is clear Americans are not getting enough for their money. Even corporations are starting to realize that rising health costs are an obstacle to hiring and a drag on the economy. I predict that in the next ten years the government will turn on Big Pharma the way they turned on Big Tobacco.
Some of the difference between the left and the right is reducible to public interest versus private gain. The BBC reports Exxon-Mobil doubled its profits in the last year, up to $4 billion, which one analyst describes as the most money any public company had ever made in one quarter. According to Fortune magazine, pharmaceutical companies are earning 18% profits, more than twice the 8% of the oil industry. In 2002 Pfizer’s profits were $7.7 billion. Lockheed-Martin reports an operating profit of $1.4 billion for 2004.
While conservativism is not without its own justifying principles, I am coming to believe that its real foundations are corruption and public ignorance. Perhaps liberalism is not an opinion but rather the result of intelligent open-mindedness that has reached certain conclusions. Thinking that does not come to conclusions is not thinking but its shadowy double, its enemy. After a certain point, what is called open-mindedness becomes emasculated imbecility. As rhetoric, fair-mindedness is paradoxically a tool that further weakens the fair while strengthening the fanatic.
What other claims might be made for the U.S.? Is it the most diverse country? The U.S. is 84% Christian, while the world is only a third so, with a fifth of the world Muslim, 13% Hindu, and 6% Buddhist. A surprising 15% showing for non-religiousness may be exaggerated due to the official atheism of China.
In principle the U.S. is not a Christian country but in matter of fact it is, on the coins and in the school pledge and the speeches of our leaders. Calling Christian values Judeo-Christian is a fraudulent gesture of appropriation rather than of genuine tolerance or understanding. Our 2% Jewish minority while important is very small, relatively speaking. (Remarkably enough, there are a million more Jewish people in the U.S., 5.8 million, than in Israel, 4.8 million.)
Linguistically the U.S. does not dominate the world. 15% of the world speaks Chinese as their first language, compared to only about 6% for Hindi, English or Spanish. Culturally, however, it is worth noting that the U.S. makes almost four thousand films a year, compared to 800 for France, 200 for India, and 79 for Hong Kong and China.
Of the world’s 268 nations, is it the freest? 49% of the population votes in the Presidential elections, below the world average of 56%. More people show up to vote in Nigeria and Romania. Is the rest of America apathetic or disenfranchised or distracted or disgusted?
If you ask Amnesty about freedom they will remind you of U.S. torture in Iraqi prisons and the 600 prisoners of war being held at Guantanamo Bay in violation of the Geneva Convention. They also report on the 2002 requirement of Muslims in the U.S. to register with the INS, a terrifying policy which was quietly discontinued last December.
Freedom House, an organization which ranks political freedom in every country on a scale of 1 down to 7, puts the U.S. in its top category along with 33 other countries. Israel scores a 2, India a 2.5. Turkey and Indonesia fall into the “Partly Free” category with 3.5, Kuwait 4.5, Bahrain 5.0. “Not Free” includes Jordan, Brunei, Oman, UAE, Yemen, as well as Pakistan at 5.5, with Qatar at 6.0. The lowest rankings include the Communist countries of China, North Korea, and Cuba, as well as Iran, and also somewhat surprisingly Egypt. Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia falls into the last ranking of 7, making it one of the nine least free countries in the world.
America’s freedom may be laudable but it is by no means unique. When one is reminded that the U.S. is only one of the world’s 121 democracies, it becomes implausible that this is what makes it a target for terrorist attack.
Stats can be confusing, especially when switching between absolute numbers and figures relative to population. Any statistic requires context to be understood, and some are already dated by the time they can be compiled. In all fairness, stats about America should be adjusted for per capita income, so we can see if Americans consume more than others because of a culture of consumption, or if it simply looks that way because there are more rich Americans.
America is the largest country that is not poor as dirt, the largest of the rich countries and the richest of the large. I believe Susan Sontag is right that ours is a brutal land. Our society initiates and indoctrinates and perpetuates itself by means of brutality. It is a cruel country that does not acknowledge poverty as a cause of crime or addiction as a treatable illness. Under the Bush administration, it is building a punitive educational system where every student, teacher and administrator must live in the shadow of being tested every year like cattle; meanwhile only one in 2,000 cattle are tested and the sick ones are sent out into the food supply before the test results come back. In passing his education bill and then refusing to fund it, Bush is like Pharoah ordering the Hebrews to make bricks without straw. Some suspect it is deliberate sabotage to justify future privatization.
This is a country that supports Israel’s hard-line conservatives not merely because of oil interests or the work of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (recently ranked by Fortune as more influential than the AFL-CIO or the NRA) but from a twisted admiration of conquest by force. For the kind of money the U.S. is spending, you could build an enormous machine which would vacuum up every Arab in its path and strip, shear, rape, photograph, fingerprint and freeze them – and this is just what the U.S. has done.
Perhaps there are some to whom America is a hated symbol of modernity, but most abroad judge it by its actions. The U.S.’s current foreign policy is neither isolationism nor internationalism but rather a “unilateralism” that combines the worst of both, intervening wherever it wants without regard for sovereignty or world opinion. More and more the U.S. stands alone, on reducing pollution, eliminating landmines, banning nuclear testing and establishing an international court for war criminals, all of which it opposes.
My purpose is not to bash America but rather to commend reality to my fellow citizens. The patriot may reply that facts are trivia compared to things of the spirit, that America has a greatness which is too proud to stoop to proof or to manifest itself in any objective way. This is peevish solipsism. Like inner beauty, it’s loser-talk.
Of course, patriots aren’t interested in facts. And by rejecting them, they do a disservice to their fellow citizens and the country they share with them. They turn the flag into a gag and a blindfold, a banner for the rabid and the paid-off to carry while trampling down the more thoughtful. It is short-sighted for the serious left to try to counter with its own rhetoric of patriotism; it further diminishes the field of what it is permitted to say. We see the consequences of this every day. When fear and wrath are allowed to pass for knowledge, the world lurches blindly towards hell.
Said Shirazi is a writer living in Princeton, New Jersey. This essay is based largely on data from NationMaster.com, an Australian website which started as an interface to the CIA World FactBook but has expanded to include reports from UN sources and various NGOs.
Other articles by Said Shirazi